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Our Moral Obligations to Refugees Go Beyond Giving Them Refuge

Philosophical discussions on refugees tend to focus on the moral duty to admit people fleeing persecution. In an extract from her new book, philosophy professor Serena Parekh argues for a wider debate, including the ethics of placing refugees in camps for long periods.

Written by Serena Parekh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A refugee stands with her son just outside the IFO-2 complex of the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya on May 8, 2015.AFP/TONY KARUMBA

For many in the West, the primary moral question about refugees has to do with whether we have a moral obligation to admit them into our states, either through resettlement from refugee camps or through claims of asylum, and if so, how many.

This moral question – sometimes referred to as the ethics of admission – is also the primary focus of much normative philosophical analysis.

We ought to expand the moral approach we take to refugees. Philosophers have been overly focused on the moral obligations of liberal democracies to admit or exclude refugees, and have not given sufficient moral consideration to the treatment of the displaced who will not be resettled.

Most people, once they are displaced from their homes, remain in protracted situations lasting five years or more. The average length of time a person in a protracted situation will remain a refugee is 17 years. Less than 1 percent of official refugees will ever be resettled permanently in a new country.

The majority of the world’s refugees remain for years, often decades, sometimes generations, in refugee camps or informal settlements. Encampment – placing refugees in camps or other places where they have little access to resources, rights or protection for prolonged periods of time – has become the de facto way of handling refugee situations. This has supplemented and increasingly overtaken the other “durable” solutions – voluntary return to the country of origin (repatriation), local integration in the country of residence or asylum and resettlement in a third country.

I argue that we have a moral obligation to reject the policy of long-term encampment as the de facto solution to the problem of unwanted and superfluous people in the world. This is not to say that refugee camps are never appropriate; they may be appropriate in the short term as a way to provide emergency aid. The problem is the use of camps as a long-term measure for containing forcibly displaced people so that they do not threaten the sovereignty of other states. This is sometimes referred to as “warehousing” – placing people in camps, dependent on aid, for protracted periods of time so that they do not pose problems for neighboring states or have the ability to claim asylum in the West.

Those who are warehoused in refugee camps are usually deprived of the rights that are part of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, such as the right to work, run a business, own property, move freely within the country of residence or choose a place of residence. In short, the moral harms of being in a refugee camp include a sense of captivity, the denial of freedom, autonomy and basic human rights – not merely for short exceptional periods but regularly and for extended periods of time.

If, for pragmatic or political reasons, camps are going to continue to be used to house refugees over the long term, they ought to at least meet the level of what John Rawls calls a decent hierarchical society. That is, they ought to minimally protect the basic human rights and dignity of their residents and allow some form of political participation and accountability. Currently this does not occur in most refugee camps.

Though a low bar in most other contexts, when it comes to the treatment of refugees and the displaced, many would consider ensuring this basic level of rights, protection and accountability an unaffordable and unnecessary luxury. The reason that the ethical treatment of the displaced during their displacement is often ignored is because displacement is assumed by most people to be exceptional and temporary.

I argue that both of these assumptions should be abandoned.

Displacement is so much a fact of everyday political life that far from being exceptional, it ought to be seen as a regular part of global politics. Far from being temporary, displacement ought to be assumed to be long term and enduring. Living outside of a nation-state is no longer an anomaly that can be brushed aside as exceptional to contemporary political life; it has in many ways become a standard way of living for millions of people, and will increasingly be so in the future. The treatment of people during their displacement, because it is regular and enduring, not exceptional and temporary, ought to be subject to rigorous ethical consideration.

Some of the harms of the refugee regime must be understood as structural injustices, injustices in which Western states can be held remedially responsible. Structural injustices are not necessarily the result of deliberate wrongdoing or explicitly unjust policies, but are the unintentional outcome of the actions of different agents each working for their own morally acceptable ends.

This calls for a new understanding of responsibility. We ought to understand our responsibility for global displacement as “remedial” in the sense that we are responsible for fixing the problem in front of us because of the various ways in which we are connected to the situation, even though we did not cause it.

To connect this to the Syrian refugee crisis, in my view the moral obligations of, for example, the United States, to Syrian refugees are not exhausted by resettling 10,000 refugees. We must continue to ask: And what happens to the other 5 million people from Syria who have been displaced by the war? Under what conditions will they be forced to live and for how long?

We need to focus on the moral dimension of how the displaced are treated between the time of their exile and when they are finally able to find a permanent durable solution. This period of time is ever growing and more and more people spend their lives here. For the vast majority of people, it is a time characterized by confinement and human rights violations. This should not be the accepted norm. We ought to be promoting policies and practices that treat the forcibly displaced as fully human and with dignity.

This is an edited extract from “Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement” published by Routledge.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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